In our worship today the congregation is led by the minister of the Word, before the preaching of the sermon, in a rather comprehensive prayer that contains various elements. Then, immediately after the sermon, the minister leads in another prayer that is usually very brief. Now this order was not always followed in, Reformed Churches. From the collection of Christian Prayers handed down in our Dutch liturgy and translated into the English, we learn that some centuries ago prayers were used and designated for use after the preaching of the sermon. First of all, there is the Prayer for the Needs of All Christendom which, although considerably abridged in our English translations, is still rather long. Then there is the Brief Form of Prayer after the Sermon, the contents of which are also of a rather general nature. There is also found a Prayer After the Explanation of the Catechism. In the light of these three we will be able to understand what our fathers considered to be the purpose of this part of the worship.
Our fathers desired to place the chief prayer of the service after the sermon. This, we have seen, is the opposite of today’s custom. And yet a little reflection on the matter will prove that they had many good arguments in their favor. In order to be truly thankful we must first know the way of salvation, which is explained in the sermon. Our coming to God should be the response of his seeking us in the way of grace. Thus having been instructed and comforted, we are the better able to order our petitions before Him aright.
Then let us also remember that one of the purposes of true worship is the rededication of ourselves to God. Prayer is the offering up of our desires to him, the surrender of our lives to His perfect will. It is the most fitting response to the preaching of the gospel. And especially when, as in the first prayer mentioned above, the needs of all Christendom are remembered, this element of consecration truly comes to its own.
One other thing is apparent if we look at the prayers used of old. The prayer after the sermon was not a summary of the message. Never should the congregation be led to confuse the prophetic and priestly functions. When called upon to preach, let us preach. When we must lead in prayer, let the prayer breath the spirit of devotion and communion with God. All summaries should be part of the sermon alone, and should not be appended to the sermon in the form of a prayer.
There is no reason perhaps for changing our practice and returning to that of the fathers, even though liturgically it has much to commend itself to us; However, if we retain the congregational prayer before the sermon, let us remember that the closing prayer must also be handled most reverently. To both prayers there must be specific purpose and they must be carefully designed to realize that purpose.
The congregational prayer may include various elements. It must, first of all, be concerned with the needs of the congregation for the particular hour of worship and for their life and conduct as the church of Christ in the present world. The practical aim of the present worship must be that through it the church is prepared to glorify God by living in the midst of the world in accord with His Word, and so show forth the praise of the Name of the Lord as His peculiar and distinct people. To receive the necessary blessing unto the attainment of that end the church approaches God in prayer.
In addition to this, various other elements may be added to this prayer. The needs of the church in general may be included and in this category such things as the following may be mentioned: “the needs of the ministry of the Word, the instruction given in the church, the home, and the school, the society life of the communion of the saints, de care of the sick and afflicted, the needs of the office bearers, the families and the individuals as parents, children, young people, aged of days, etc. From here the prayer may properly broaden out to include the needs of the entire Catholic Church of Christ; of which the local congregation is but a part. The particular denominational needs may also be mentioned. And so, remembering that this is not all-inclusive, we soon detect the need of condensing this prayer, so that certain things are included in one prayer and other things in another. It is not possible to include everything in every prayer and neither is this necessary.
In the past we had certain formulated liturgical prayers, which we referred to before. These have not been preserved in our Psalters but we do find them in the Christian Reformed Psalter Hymnal. They are specially designed prayers for special occasions, as, e.g., the time of fasting, time of confession, before meals, prayer for the sick, morning and evening prayers, opening and closing of ecclesiastical assemblies, etc. Then, in addition to these, we have specially designed prayers that are commended for our use as they are part of our liturgy and ought to be highly regarded. These prayers are specifically designated for particular occasions; and this need they also fulfill as, for example, the time of baptism, Lord’s Supper, Installations, etc. You find these in the respective forms in the back of our Psalters.
It is, of course, a very good custom that the minister leads the congregation in a brief prayer at the conclusion of the sermon. This prayer should be brief. Generally, we would expect that thanks is offered for the blessings received during the sermon and that the Holy Spirit will so apply the Word that it will be instrumental in the day by day sanctification of the church. Without this gift the means of grace will profit us but little. Through this blessing our lives will reflect true gratitude, a manifestation of the spiritual fruits of the service in which we have participated.
Of central importance in the Reformed worship is the sermon! This statement is not intended to minimize the importance of the prayers, songs, offerings, and other activities in which the church participates in her worship; but we want to single out that the worship of the church must center in the preaching of the Word. The pulpit, the official ministry, God speaking to His people through the office, gives meaning to the hour of worship. Take this away and all that is done falls flat. And where the preaching is effective, it becomes the source of support for all the other elements of worship.
Our attention, then, must briefly be focused on the sermon. We will not engage now in a lengthy homiletical discourse on the subject of sermons and sermon-making. We will simply note that the word “sermon” is derived from the Latin term for talk or discourse. Thus one of de leading dictionaries defines it on this wise: “Talk or discourse; also, a discourse for the purpose of religious instruction or exhortation, especially one based on a text of Scripture and delivered from a pulpit; hence, any similar serious discourse; a serious exhortation.” This quite well covers the ground and will suffice for our purpose.
Let us remember, however, that the sermon is not simply a discourse on some religious theme. Many seem to think this is so, and seem to be satisfied with no more than this; but that is only evidence of the fact that although in the beginning of their history Protestant Churches have generally held the sermon in high repute, Protestants today have quite universally obscured its position and purpose. Neither is a sermon the opportunity for some learned scholar to parade the accumulation of his intellectual store and unburden his mind and heart of the fruits of his thought. Still less is it an attempt to serve gospel truths in the form of sugar-coated pills, so that people can hardly recognize and much less taste what they are fed.
Because it is undoubtedly true that the majority no longer are able to recognize a sermon, and readily accept the counterfeits that are so generally offered, we would reiterate the principles set forth by Hyperius, a man of God who lived in Calvin’s time, and who first formulated the rules for Reformed preaching. We quote:
“1. First of all, so Hyperius claimed, the sermon must be thought of as the popular exposition of the Bible. The source material is Scripture alone. All topical preaching, attractive as it may be to some, is contraband. The exposition must be based on a text and explained so that all, both learned and unlearned, may derive a blessing there from by the operation of the Spirit.
“2. Moreover, in preaching the minister must be regarded as God’s servant, more particularly as the representative of Christ who is the Head of the Church. This immediately binds the heart and mind of the preacher, since he may bring nothing which is at variance with the plain teaching of the Word. But it likewise binds the hearts and minds of the congregation, since all must accept the teaching of Christ. The value of a sermon, therefore, must not be judged by external appeal and technical perfection but rather by whether it has reflected God’s truth.
“3. Closely connected with this was a third principle. In the days of Hyperius oratory flourished, and many people expected the sermons to be masterpieces of this art. The author recognized that the minister must be trained as a public speaker: Yet he insisted that the people remember that preaching because of its official character had an altogether different aim.
“4. And finally the Biblical sermon produced, so he said, certain psychological results such as joy or sorrow, contrition or fear, depending on the spiritual condition of the hearers. The congregation should never be satisfied with an abstract theological dissertation. It existed not for the benefit of the minister and a few learned members but for the sake of all. Both sheep and lambs, all in their own way, must hear and recognize the voice of the Great Shepherd of the sheep.”
These principles were enunciated some four centuries ago. Since that time many have elaborated on them. Yet they are still valid and will remain valid until the end of time. Therefore all ministers and consistories and congregations who seek to worship God aright do well to give diligence that they are practiced in purity. Only when the sermon is proper can our entire liturgical service be spiritually effective.